In my early teen years, I hovered on the borderline between craving to be really chic, and feeling shamefully shy.
I remember reading fashion magazines and falling in love with all the new styles.
My mom would sometimes comment about how fashion-forward I was, often on the cutting edge of the newest trends. She’d take me shopping and I’d fill my closet with the coolest looks.
I loved getting dressed and admiring my outfits in the mirror, but stepping out in public was a whole other story. I felt self-conscious and awkward.
One day, in 7th. grade, I remember wearing a skirt (a short skirt) to school. Its prettiness was quickly overshadowed by the discomfort I felt with my exposed legs and restricted range of motion. It was the most mortifying day of my life, the entirety of which I probably remained beet red in the face – flushed with embarrassment. As much as I loved the skirt, I never would wear it again.
It wasn’t only revealing clothing that made me feel humiliated. Anything stylish, or that was supposed to make me look attractive, made me extremely uncomfortable in public, even amid my friends.
I liked myself at home, but felt anomalous going out in public, especially after looking at the models in magazines, on TV, and after comparing my body with the most gorgeous of my friends’.
How could I walk out all dolled up, as if I was a runway supermodel, when I was clearly not? It felt wrong, pretentious, degrading.
I obsessed and agonized over every one of my features that weren’t “perfect” or as flawless as I imagined they should be. I wanted to go to the beach with my friends, but the thought of having to expose all my flaws and be compared, was utterly distressing.
Towards the end of Junior high, I undertook my very own fashion rebellion.
With the support of my best friend who joined me for the ride, we began unapologetically wearing whatever we wanted. Instead of high style shops at the mall, we began scouring the racks at every thrift store we could find. We’d cut, sew and combine; creating totally new and bold clothing no one else had the guts (or more likely, desire) to wear.
The first day of high school, I walked in looking like an astronaut with metallic pink bell-bottom pants I had sewn myself. My friend enjoyed taking huge, puffy dresses and pairing the skirt portion with edgy casual sweaters. Our hair and makeup were equally audacious and outrageous. I enjoyed that time, because I felt freed from so much social pressure.
I removed myself from the obligation to wear the “right” thing, or constantly be judged on my fashion choices or body type. Instead of trying to fit in and be accepted, I openly declared I didn’t care what others thought of me based on my looks.
My friend and I made the statement that we were not concerned with fitting in and going with the flow. We would no longer be slaves to others’ judgments. But, when I walked into the school cafeteria, all alone in my astronaut pants, I still felt belittled and scrutinized.
My friend and I slowly weakened and compromised. We went from standing out, to blending in with a fringe crowd who similarly didn’t aspire to be the popular kids.
In general, I maintained that nonconformity into college, though I had departed from the daring, statement making outfits and began to dress more simply – at times not even minding if I wore the same thing every day, which, at art school was nothing out of the ordinary.
Though I had been freed from the shackles of the fashion world, I was still terribly uncomfortable with my body. Always feeling self-conscious and obsessing over my “flaws”. Walking through the streets of Manhattan, I remember feeling validated if someone happened to comment about my looks, or whistle – maybe at me… and on days I received no such attention, I involuntarily wondered what was wrong with me.
I traveled on the subways and I recall just looking down, never making eye contact. Looking around meant finding people staring or not staring; both were unsavory. Being gawked at by complete strangers was obviously abhorrent, but at the same time, if no one was looking, perhaps I wasn’t good enough to be looked at.
At the time, none of this was in my consciousness; it was all a normal part of life effectively swept under the proverbial rug. But, looking back, it is all too clear.
Liberated at Last
The day I finally donned my hijab, a year or so after I entered Islam, it was as if I had stepped behind a two-way glass. I was suddenly free to look around and observe the people, men and women, around me.
One of those early days I remember being on the N train. There was a voluptuous woman standing in the center, holding onto the rail for stability. She was looking down as if she was unaware of all the eyes fixated on her body as the turbulent ride caused her curvy endowments to bounce and tremble. The men looked at her unflinchingly, shamelessly watching the show, unafraid of any reprisal from the lady who dare not even lift her eyes.
It played out like that day after day. It seemed as if I had stepped into a new world, but in reality, it was the same world I had been unmindful of. Meanwhile, my life changed further.
Suddenly, doors were quite literally opening for me. Gentlemen would go out of their way to hold the door. As I thanked them and passed by, their modest gazes expressed nothing more than kindness and respect. It was new to me.
I had been sort of a Tomboy, but Islam and hijab pushed me to embrace my femininity. I began to enjoy and appreciate being a woman, and grew to love my body. I became grateful for all the things I had previously perceived as flaws, because they had prevented me from dressing too indecently and from sharing my body with people in order to garner attention.
As a Muslim, I no longer felt threatened or in competition with other women. They became my companions and my sisters instead. I no longer felt the need to be like a man, or compete with men in order to be a worthy human.
Islam taught me the true worth of being female and that my value did not depend on being the same as men, nor did it depend on my beauty. Only my goodness and sincerity, my kindness and devotion to my Maker would uplift me. Only my denial of Him and His blessings could debase me.
I knew, for the first time, that I had been made and given features intended for me. That my eyes, hands, feet and nose were all blessings to be grateful for, not to obsess over their shapes and sizes.
I’m able to wear whatever I want and feel completely comfortable in my home. I no longer worry about beauty, but I am confident in my own skin. I know that the people who care about me think I’m beautiful the way I am. Like my Lord, they care more about what’s in my heart and my actions than the appearance of my fleeting vessel.
But this doesn’t mean that I let myself go unkempt, either. I wear what makes me feel good and beautiful, not what magazines say I should wear. My confidence now comes from within, not from my reflection in the mirror.
And when I go out, my external appearance is not a display of beauty but of the fact I have more important things on my mind. It wordlessly conveys a message loud and clear to everyone, that I am not the type some guy is going to “take home” and that flirting is unwelcome.
Hijab has given me the freedom to move through the world with dignity and respect I had not known before it. It has been truly liberating.
I hardly ever have nightmares, but when I do they almost always involve me being out somewhere in a public place- and realizing I’m not wearing hijab.
This article is from Reading Islam’s archive and was originally published at an earlier date.